Massachusetts earns an F for its civil forfeiture laws
Lowest bar to forfeit property and no conviction required
Poor protections for innocent third-party property owners
As much as 100% of forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement
State Forfeiture Laws
Along with North Dakota, the only other state to earn an F for its law grade, Massachusetts has the worst civil forfeiture laws in the country. Massachusetts law enforcement agents just need probable cause—the lowest possible standard of proof—to believe that property was involved in a crime in order to forfeit it. State law also places the burden on innocent owners to demonstrate their innocence or ignorance of any criminal activity associated with their seized property in order to recover it. Finally, Bay State law enforcement agencies get to keep up to 100 percent of forfeiture proceeds, giving them considerable incentive to seize property.
Forfeiture reporting requirements in Massachusetts are also very poor. Law enforcement agencies are only required to keep an inventory of property seized for controlled substances violations; they are not required to produce comprehensive annual forfeiture reports. By filing a Massachusetts Public Records Law request, the Institute for Justice received accounting records that allowed statewide forfeiture proceeds to be estimated. This onerous process and the lack of any detailed information about individual forfeiture cases or even agency-level forfeiture proceeds make it impossible for the average citizen or lawmaker to hold state and local law enforcement agencies accountable for their forfeiture activity. According to IJ’s calculations, Massachusetts law enforcement forfeited almost $139 million between 2000 and 2014, an average of about $9.3 million each fiscal year.
State Law Sources
Standard of proof
Probable cause. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 94C, § 47(d); Commonwealth v. One 2004 Audi Sedan, 921 N.E.2d 85, 88–89 (Mass. 2010).
Innocent owner burden
Owner. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 94C, § 47(d).
Up to 100 percent. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 94C, § 47(d).
Agencies must maintain an inventory of seized property. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 94C, § 47(e).
Massachusetts ranks 46th for federal forfeiture, with over $63 million in Department of Justice equitable sharing proceeds from 2000 to 2013.
State Forfeiture Data
Estimated Forfeiture Proceeds
Average per year
Source: Data were obtained by the Institute for Justice through a Massachusetts Public Records Law request made to the Comptroller of the Commonwealth. These data are based on fiscal-year deposits to the special forfeiture trust funds for the attorney general and each district attorney. Under state law, the attorney general and district attorneys receive half of all forfeiture proceeds, while state and local law enforcement agencies receive the other half. To arrive at the totals represented in the above table, IJ took the sum of the proceeds sent to the attorney general and district attorneys and doubled it to account for proceeds distributed to state and local law enforcement that were not represented in the data obtained.
Federal Equitable Sharing
Massachusetts law enforcement’s extensive participation in the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program—earning the state a ranking of 46th nationally—compounds the problems with the state’s forfeiture laws. Law enforcement agencies received $63.5 million in equitable sharing proceeds between 2000 and 2013, or $4.5 million per calendar year. Only 7 percent of those proceeds came from adoptive forfeitures, while the rest came from joint task forces and investigations, equitable sharing procedures left largely intact by the DOJ’s 2015 policy change intended to limit equitable sharing. This means that use of equitable sharing in Massachusetts is likely to continue on much the same scale. Finally, Massachusetts agencies also received more than $13 million in Treasury Department forfeiture proceeds from 2000 to 2013, averaging nearly $1 million per fiscal year.